One of the questions I have about Tronti, and operaismo in general, is to what extent his critiques are applicable today. He is writing out of a very specific moment in capitalism—the so-called “golden age” of the post-war boom, with its combination of developmentalist economics in the third world, the Keynesian compromise with labor in the imperial core, Fordism, and centralized, comparatively inflexible corporate structures. To what extent does “social capital” as he conceives it still exist? And what happens when “social capital” turns into Negri’s “real subsumption” and “biopolitics” under condition that are, arguably, quite different?
The shift to what David Harvey calls “flexible accumulation” that occurs in the 70s—with increasingly decentralized firms, liberalization of the economies of the periphery and volatilization of capital movement in general, the growth of the service sector, the mechanization of agriculture—can’t really be seen as replacing the tenets of the ‘45-73 period, so much as transforming them. For instance, the state continues to intervene in, legislate and administer production, and in the US, though the spending is not re-circulated to the working-class, the state still runs a huge deficit on corporate giveaways, subsidies and, of course, armaments and colonial adventures. Then as now, many industries are dominated by monopolies. The idea of neo-liberalism as anti-state is, of course, a fiction. There is, now, simply (or rather, complexly) a different relationship between state and capital.
But still, it’s unclear that, for instance, trade-union activism of the modest sort that seeks a larger share of the surpluses is today, as it was in Tronti’s time, a force that contributes to development. Given the conditions of stagnation within the capitalist economy, and given the fact many manufacturing sectors seem mechanized to such a degree that additional profits are very difficult to secure, it might be the case that unions are actually a far larger threat to capital today than they were 50 years ago. Hence, for the last 25-30 years the
What I’m worrying over is the oft-repeated claim that critiques of administered life, of the conformist culture of 50s and 60s capital, of the “augmented survival” that Debord describes, and the society of command in Tronti, (critiques, in other words, of the extension of the state across wide swaths of the, umm, welt) actually play into the hands of neoliberal crusaders in the 70s, 80s and 90s, that the critique of augmented survival for the most privileged sectors of the working class enables a shift to “mere” survival. There is some truth to this, although I think the truth has more to do with perversions and distortions in the implementation of ideas that were, and remain, radical, but that can end up—this is the case with a good deal of post-structuralism—as fundamentally liberal or even libertarian in nature.
“Social capital” might in its transformation end up as something like Debord’s “diffuse spectacle,” a form of rule that proceeds less by direct command and administration but by a tacit performance on the part of society, in order not only to reproduce the existing relations of production but to expand what is deemed socially necessary labor time. Spectacle works on use-value. I think both of these functions fit with Foucault’s definition of biopolitics—the creation of desires (History of Sexuality, Vol I), and the management of populations (The Birth of Biopolitics).
The shift, then, seems to do with an adversion to a kind of calculated chaos—a calculated permissiveness that allows the formation of areas of self-governance, autonomy, agitation—in order to allow capital to expand. The State, in certain sectors, retreats only to return. . . Or the capital
At the same time, however, the need for new capital markets requires increasingly brutal and direct legislative or military intervention in the periphery—primitive accumulation by force and fiat. Naomi Klein’s book documents the infernal career of such slash-and-burn techniques, whether they result from the exploitation of “naturally” arisen crises or the manufacture of crises.
Tronti suggests—and this is a point made very explicitly in Harry Cleaver’s excellent Reading Capital Politically—that all crises are either the result of working-class militancy or, relatedly, an attempt by the ruling class to control the working-class through the political implementation of economic control (all economics is politics, for Cleaver). I’m not sure I buy this %100. Or I’m not sure—as an empirical claim—that it’s a meaningful distinction. Of course, I want this to be true. I think that—in terms subjectivity—this is probably the best way to look at things, in line with, say, Benjamin’s “On the Concept of History” I also think it bears out if one looks at the crises of the 70s and 80s, and those direct interventions that Klein so expertly indexes. It’s certainly true, for instance, of price gouging by commodities speculators currently, and it’s certainly true that the subprime housing scandal was a way of, in a sense, getting, by a backdoor means, givebacks from the working class (by putting many people in deep debt). But there also could be a good deal to learn by looking at such things as inter-capital competition. I don’t think doing so renders the working-class entirely passive.
Many of my readers—used to me talking about poetry—probably don’t care about any of this, and have probably already stopped reading paragraphs ago. But for those who do, what do you think?